Monthly Archives: January 2014

What Makes A Villian

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Welcome back to the blog. Last week’s piece on the nature of show largely came about due to seeing other writers struggle with that concept. As such, I’ve done some musing on other essential concepts of writing that I see young writers struggle with. So today, I want to discuss an essential concept of storytelling that can be a problem for many writers- the villain.

Making The Bad Guy Look Good

The main driving force of any story is conflict. And while many stories have that conflict in different ways (internal, conflict with an environment), the villain is the most common force to create conflict. Many writers confuse the villain with the atagonist, or opposing force to the main character (protagonist). While this is often true, the terms are not exclusive, and writers can focus on the villain as the protagonist with ease. But regardless, a villain must create conflict with the hero or opposing force. To make this effective, a writer has several options to craft a memorable villain

Dark Reflection

Some of the most striking villains maintain their opposition by still having similarities to their opposite number. However, the villain in this case functions as a road not taken, a vision of the hero if they had made different choices and become evil. A classic example is Venom and Spider-Man; aside from their similar designs and powers, their civilian lives are close to identical. Both are photojournalists, but while Peter Parker is honest, Eddie Brock falsifies his story, which leads to his eventual firing. At the same time, Brock’s powers as Venom are derived from an alien costume previously worn by Parker. While the suit caused Parker to nearly turn to the dark side and reject it, Brock embraced it, becoming a full evil reflection and a reminder to Spider Man of the dangers of the dark side.

Overseer

This is a type of villain that works by not being seen. He or she will be in charge of a great power; an army, magic, or even a ruling government. While the hero may struggle against various evil figures, all of them will be subservient to a far greater evil, which the hero must battle towards. Usually, this villain is kept in mystery, allowing the hero and reader to speculate on just who and what this person might be. Excellent examples of this are the Emperor from Star War or Fire Lord Ozai from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Both were characters that largely worked from the shadows (at least in the original Star Wars Trilogy) and while acknowledged as the driving force of evil, kept hidden from the audience, until they finally emerged to prove that all the evil attributed to them was justified.

Best Friend

This is a villain that can be a treasure trove for writers. A best friend is a character that to the outside world, is trustworthy and good, but has a dark secret that will cause them to betray everyone. However, just how that happens is a wide range of options. The writer can present their betrayal as a shock, or show it to the reader and no one else. Writers can also use these characters to create twists, by keeping the villain a mystery or even through the use of red herrings (characters designed to throw the reader off course). And once the revelation is complete, the writer can then explore the drama of having a trusted person betray his or her comrades. There have been many examples of this throughout literature, but a more recent example comes from Disney’s recent animated film Frozen. This film not only makes use of a red herring, but the reveal of its villain is not only unexpected and hurtful, but upon a second viewing of the film, all the details of the turn are given in subtle hints that effectively tricked the viewer.

The Opposite

The most obvious type of villain. This is a character that simply put, is everything the hero is not. This can be shown in many ways- old vs. young, kindness vs. ruthlessness, normal vs. magic. However, there are other twists as well, especially if there is an aspect of the villain that the hero could benefit from. For example, a hero could be doubtful of themselves, while the villain is convinced of their superiority. By having the hero defeat the villain, the hero gains self-confidence while the villain is punished for arrogance. There are many other versions, but for a few good examples, check out Frodo Baggins vs. Sauron from Lord of the Rings, Delta House vs. Omega House in Animal House, and Optimus Prime vs. Megatron from Transformers.

Of course, a villain is only as good as the hero they face. But don’t worry, dawn is coming next week.

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Writing Tips: Show Don’t Tell

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Greetings and welcome back to the blog. Today I return to active status with a commentary on a very basic aspect of writing, yet one that many writers struggle with early on. I chose to comment on this after reading works from my fellow writers and finding them having a hard time with it. This aspect is the simple rule of show, don’t tell.

What It Is

Imagine the ending of Old Yeller; the tragic scene where the boy is forced to kill his beloved dog, now gone rabid. This is an iconic scene of film history, a scene which never fails to bring tears to the eyes of those who watch it. Now, imagine that scene re-imagined, in which everything happens the same, but the boy turns to the camera and cries to the audience as he acts, “THIS IS SAD! I FEEL SO SAD RIGHT NOW!” Granted, this is an exaggeration, but this is the basic concept of show don’t tell- the idea of allowing the reader to interpret what they see or read, rather then spelling it out for them.

What Writers Should Know

One thing to stress is that while show don’t tell is important, it is not all consuming. Certain scenes, such as dramatic events or important moments can certainly be expanded upon, because it heightens the sense of drama and story for the readers. It can be the difference between a scene being described as a swordfight, when it is in truth…

However, the issue with many new writers is feeling they need to do this for every scene. While important scenes need to be painted clearly, many writers over do this for fear of not getting their point across. Everything is described too much- the scenery, the motives, and worse, the character’s motivation. Like the Yeller scene above, writers may simply tell the readers what the characters are thinking and feeling, rather then letting their actions speak for them. Or they will overdo scenery and slow the story down. This not only hurts the story, but the reader as well. To a degree, reading and even watching are mental exercises. The audience needs to be challenged slightly, or else they will not learn to appreciate the experience.

One of my greatest experiences in reading and viewing was knowing enough to guess a character’s motivation and use them predict what will happen in the story. But this was only because I read stories that did not tell me everything and forced me to think and anticipate how events might play out. Denying viewers this will make them feel as though the story is overburdened, or that they are reading something far too simple for them. It is the same reason that stories with subtle villains are far more revered then stories with obvious ones- both are important but stories that make a viewer guess engross us more.

What Writers Can Do

Simply put, writers need to know when and how to show. As I mentioned, a major scene should be described fully. But spending as much time describing a kitchen as the Gates of Hell is a waste of time. Scenery must never overtake character or story. And writers need to have faith that the actions described are effective at molding character and motivations. Remember, the reader is smart enough to interpret a scene, if you are careful. But no reader wants to be told what to feel or what something means. So for a final example, I leave you with a recent example of breaking this rule. Below is an original scene from Return of the Jedi, in which the evil Darth Vader watches the Emperor torture his son….

And here is the version George Lucas put into the recent blu-ray re-release.

See what I mean?